Education International
Education International

European education unionists challenge gender stereotypes

published 15 May 2012 updated 23 May 2012

EI European Region, the European Trade Union Committee for Education (ETUCE), discussed teacher trade union actions challenging gender stereotypes and gender segregation in the labour market during a peer-learning activity (PLA) and a training seminar. These events were held from 9-10 May, in Brussels, Belgium, in the frame of a project funded by the European Commission’s Directorate-General Employment, Social Affairs and Inclusion.

ETUCE Director, Martin Rømer, welcomed participants to these events by underlining that “gender segregation leads men and women to achieve different jobs on the labour market. This is linked to gender stereotypes in the education system. Education unions have a crucial role to play in overcoming gender stereotypes.”

“The ETUCE Action Plan aims at bringing a change in students’ career choice and promoting a gender sensitive approach in teaching,” he said. “We seek to raise awareness among teachers on how to challenge gender stereotypes, and help students choose their career path irrespective of stereotypes attached to their gender.”

During the PLA on 9 May, Agnès Parent-Thirion from EUROFOUND, a tripartite EU agency providing expertise on living and working conditions, industrial relations and managing change in Europe, made a presentation on gender (in)equality in the labour market, focusing on young people’s career choices.

She mentioned key findings of the Fifth EUROFOUND Survey on Working Conditions. Data showed many differences between countries on gender issues. Overall, in Europe, there is gender segregation, with: a low proportion of women in supervisory positions; a gap between men and women on the working hours of the household; a gap between men and women on the working time duration; and a gap between men and women on the number of hours spent on paid and unpaid work.

“The women’s health is always worse than the men’s one, women being more exposed to psychosocial risks,” she deplored. “For women, education does not pay off. Plus, a pay gap still exists between men and women.”

Thomas Viola Rieske from the University of Potsdam, Germany, also presented an overall view on differences between boys and girls in the education sector.

Rieske questioned education being a highly feminised profession, leading to a lack of role models for boys. He further noted that immigrant and working class boys are particularly at risk of exclusion from the education system compared to other boys’ groups.

He regretted that good results at school do not bear fruits in the labour market. Even if girls perform well, and often better than boys, at school, women are more likely to be found on the labour market in positions with low acknowledgement, low pay, and low decision-making power.

Rieske also stressed that there is no relation between the teacher’s gender and students’ educational achievements.

Introducing gender sensitiveness in national education systems, with regard to boys' education in Germany, Frauke Gützkow, from one of the German member organisations, the Gewerkschaft Erziehung und Wissenschaft(GEW), presented the paper “Disadvantaged Boys – Dominating Women?”

Gützkow detailed some of the requests that GEW has been working on, highlighting that her union very much supports the implementation of pedagogies accepting and supporting diversity. GEW demands that gender competences be an integral part of any education at university level and professional training sessions for educators.

In the afternoon, participants were divided into two working groups, discussing national trade unions’ good practices in promoting gender sensitiveness in their education systems.

The training seminar took place on 10 May. The Chair of the ETUCE Equality Standing Committee, Kounka Damianova, reported on the PLA held the day before, noting that “we must assure human rights in education, democracy in education at all levels and preserve the rights of girls and boys, the things they have in common and the differences.”

“Education unions must support gender equality, and changing behaviours within our organisations will strengthen equality in education. Educators must be supported with high levels studies. We must make better use of the European social dialogue in education, and improve legislation to achieve gender equality in our society.”

Lucie Davoine, from the Gender Equality unit of the European Commission’s Directorate-General Justice, talked about gender sensitive working environments, stressing European and national legislation on equality issues and working conditions. She presented the EU Commission’s Strategy for Equality between Men and Women 2010-2015, aiming at achieving gender equality in economic independence, as well as in decision-making processes.

“There is a very strong legal basis for gender equality at EU level,” Davoine said. “Concerning the labour market for instance, directives have been adopted on equal pay, protection of pregnant workers, and maternity leave.”

Why does the gender pay gap exist, men earning 17% more than women in Europe? Davoine explained that discrimination, undervaluing of women’s work, a glass ceiling (defined as an unseen, yet unbreachable barrier keeping women from rising to the upper rungs of the corporate ladder, regardless of their qualifications or achievements), and segregation in the labour market remain. These lead to lower pensions and a higher risk of poverty for women.

The key speaker, Carolyn Hannan, from the University of Lund, Sweden, gave a presentation on how to challenge gender stereotypes in education, and create a supportive school environment for girls. She said there are many challenges to gender equality in society as a whole. Sometimes it is legitimate to focus on girls, and sometimes it is justified to focus on boys.

Changing the attitude is a slow progress, and gender equality has not yet been fully translated into actions, she said. She regretted that education does not pay off for girls, due to gender stereotypes, which are present from an early stage, in textbooks, curricula, or teaching materials.

She further linked gender stereotypes and bullying at school. If girls perform well in subjects labelled as boys’ school ones, i.e. mathematics and sciences, they are sometimes deemed unfeminine and exposed to harassment. This is why Hannan called for a supportive and inclusive school environment. Social media have unfortunately provided new ways of harassment and abuse based on gender stereotypes, and she called for further research on that topic.

Both the PLA and the training seminar have provided input for the ETUCE guidelines on challenging gender stereotypes in education, to be set up by the project advisory group, as well as discussed and validated at the project closing conference in Warsaw, Poland, on 11-12 September 2012.